TikTok's Boogaloo extremism problem

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Image copyright TikTok
Image caption Screengrab showing a man with an assault rifle making a TikTok video

The song is catchy - a classic country and western. A gentle southern twang croons out a chorus.

Like many TikTok clips, the user has added music and effects to their video.

This is not a normal TikTok vid though.

First of all, the username clearly contains a homophobic reference. Second, the man is holding a massive assault rifle.

"Roll Call: who is a boog boi in Colorado. See who are friends are," is the message.

Welcome to TikTok, a place designed for fun and dancing that has a dark underbelly.

The video is referring to the Boogaloo Bois, perhaps the most troubling movement to have emerged in the US recently.

Heavily armed

It's hard to describe the group succinctly. Broadly it is an extremist, libertarian militia that is deeply distrustful of government and prepared for a civil war. They are almost always heavily armed.

During the George Floyd Protests, a man linking himself to the Boogaloo Bois was accused of killing a federal security officer. Eight days later he allegedly killed a police officer. He's been charged with murder.

Image copyright CBS/Santa Cruz Sheriff's Office
Image caption Steven Carrillo has been charged with first-degree murder

Several other men with Boogaloo connections have been charged with terrorism offences in Nevada .

And yet TikTok - just like other platforms like Facebook - has struggled to get the group off its site.

Earlier this month, anti-misinformation group Media Matters for America published a report into the Boogaloo Bois on TikTok. It had found the site to be infested with extremist material.

"Basically, how I think of the Boogaloo is they want to create disruption and violence, and it's obviously against TikTok's rules to show guns in your videos," Angelo Carusone, the president of Media Matters, tells me.

TikTok acted, removing the material and the hashtags the group was using.

Impressionable audience

A couple of weeks later, I thought I'd check in to see if I could still find Boogaloo videos. I could, very easily.

Using a slightly different hashtag #boogalo, it was a doddle to find content linking and promoting Boogaloo content.

One video from another deliberately offensive username used the hashtag whilst firing his rifle. This is a common theme. Videos often include country music, the firing of a weapon and the use of different spellings and variants of the Boogaloo hashtag.

Another user shows off their anime-inspired ammunition and rifle. The child-like tone of the video is particularly worrying

Yet another shows a group of masked men with guns and a clear reference to the murder of state officials.

Other videos show users getting ready for "The Boogaloo" (rough translation: civil war).

Usually this means putting their combat gear on in front of a mirror and preparing their weapons.

Image copyright TikTok
Image caption Screengrab from Tiktok showing a man with a large gun and using a Boogaloo hashtag

The particularly troubling part of all of this is how young some of the people in the videos are.

And of course, the people watching this on TikTok are young too. Although TikTok won't itself say how young the average age is, research suggests that about half of its regular users are under 24.

It's an impressionable audience, and a dangerous platform in the wrong hands, says Chloe Colliver from the Institute of Strategic Dialogue, an anti-extremist think-tank.

"Notorious far-right influencers who've been kicked off other platforms over the past couple of years have at least temporarily found a home on TikTok," she adds.

"Recently, though, there seems to have been sporadic action taken against some of them, depending on external pressure from researchers or the media."

That's exactly what I found. I approached TikTok with the videos I'd seen and they were quickly taken down. This, says Mr Carusone, makes TikTok different to other social media platforms like Facebook.

'Wild West'

"The thing that's interesting about them is that it is like the Wild West. It is totally. But they do a lot really fast. So when there is a problem on their platform, they go at it," he says.

The problem is that the ways in which TikTok moderates clearly aren't working. At the time of writing, it's still easy to find Boogaloo content on the site.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Boogaloo followers are fixated on firearms and preparing for "another US civil war"

TikTok told me that "keeping our community safe on TikTok is a top priority".

It added: "As per our community guidelines, we do not allow content that promotes hateful ideologies and any content or accounts found to violate these guidelines will be removed."

It said the videos were taken down for "violating hate speech" and "inciting violence while depicting weapons".

But here's the thing. They'd still be on there if the BBC hadn't alerted TikTok to it.

TikTok also told me it had automatic systems that detect inappropriate content - but those systems clearly aren't picking up everything.

The problem isn't just TikTok's. On Monday, Facebook removed hundreds of Boogaloo accounts.

It isn't just about Boogaloo either. No social media company has yet found a solution to adequately protecting users from extremist content, threats of violence, conspiracy theories and racism.

Instead, TikTok's Boogaloo problem is more a sad indictment of our times, of agitators who want to post extremist content, and large tech companies unable to react fast enough to take it down.